We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

ASECS, Atlanta: Austen & women's private writing (Elizabeth Grant Smith's memoirs) · 15 April 07

Dear Harriet,

When Jim and I returned from lunch, I went to a jam-packed session on Jane Austen. The papers as a group were uneven, but the topics they brought and the intense interest and questioning by audience afterwards made the experience worthwhile.

Three people spoke on the Austen’s reach into popular media and culture. Robert Dryden described a book he is writing where he argues all the Austen remakes are educationally valuable. He said the films validate the books for many students. He described Louise Flavin’s book as useful because her methods can enable teachers to cope with students who don’t want to or can’t read older texts, don’t know anything about earlier history. He seemed to be there to ask if people would allow him to interview them on their experience of teaching Austen’s texts contextualized by films. Marilyn Francus intended her talk to be a sympathetic view of the way Austen as a presence, Austen’s texts, and much paraphernalia attached to the name, “Jane Austen,” circulates in the talk and images of websites, lists, sales places, fan fictions, and she defended these cyberspace uses: they create platforms to talk about Austen; they invite people to engage with Austen’s books; they satisfy a collective craving for Austen’s culture (idealized and imaginary), and they increase all the participants’ experience of communities. Nonetheless, I felt a grating condescension and discomfort in the way she described what she found on the Net; she kept laughing at it, and she did not dwell on the large number of serious scholarly sites for Austen, but rather silly ads.

Vivien Jones’s paper was stimulating and useful for me to hear. Her argument seemed to be that Austen offers women in this now post-feminist era places where they can recuperate identities they enact, want, respect, or find forced on them. She made much of the term, “chick-lit,” and its use for books like Bridget Jones’s Diary and showed the audience covers for new editions of Austen which closely resemble those of popular debased feminine genres. I’d say there’s nothing new in publishers chosing covers which are found in debased feminine texts of the particular era, but Ms. Jones felt that these covers are important because they not grim and puritanical (the unfair take on 2nd wave feminism), comic and light rather than melodramatic. In her talk Burney emerges as the more radical (for her presentation of a teenage girl’s problems in her Evelina), with Austen preferred for a qualifed recognition of women’s autonomy. She conceded Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet is taught to distrust herself and given a rich man as her reward, pattern repeated in Emma Woodhouse’s story where marriage is to be the source and reward of her self-discipline. Ms. Jones suggested that 90s feminism saw education as leading to power, but that has not happened to many women. Women are turning to Austen rightly as part of post-feminism:

2001 Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mr Darcy (Colin Firth) & Bridget (Renee Zellweger), the final kiss

Two papers returned to traditional ways of analyzing Austen’s texts. The first was the last of this session, and the second the first of a next (almost empty, and I left after the paper myself). James P. Carson said he was following in the footsteps of Stuart Taves’ brilliant (if unknowingly very anti-feminist and repressive of women) Some Words of Jane Austen and also Raymond Williams’s cultural studies of the 19th century through “keywords.” I wondered if, like me, Carson had attended the three Victorian sessions at the MLA where Victorianists also returned to Raymond Williams, then accompanied by a traditional foundational text, Walter Houghton’s The Victorian Frame of Mind. Like the Victorianists, Carson chose different words and analysed their uses in Austen: nice, noise, taste, elegance, conversation, revolution (for Austen a transformative change in personal feeling or outlook). He made use of Catherine Macaulay’s use of these words, and (I thought) brought together similarities of outlook about education and history in these two writers. The other paper was a rehash of Austen’s attitudes towards history and fictional imagination in Northanger Abbey, and I didn’t think managed to say anything new. When I felt the author was suggesting NA was something of a failure because it combined a non-realistic text with realism, I left.

There had been some stimulating intelligent talk at the close of the four papers given in the first session. But in such a crowded room, I found my heart began to beat very loud when I just thought of raising my hand to speak to the issues Ms. Jones raised so never spoke. I knew my voice would come out high-pitched. I was heartened because part of what Margaret Doody said was what I had had in mind: Prof. Doody suggested (as I wanted to) how since the 1983 MP (an excellent one which does present something of Austen’s heroine), what must be erased is Fanny. In her view it’s that Fanny contains in her what questions the social norms then and today, seriously questions them. We cannot have Fanny as she brings in grief, loss, serious thought, earnestness, and also how the underdog is treated. Fanny is understandably highly nervous and has survived through self-containment (audiences which approve of success and good socializing abilities would be disturbed by her). She is also self-contained and impervious to immoral pressures which violate her sense of her nature and ethics. Fanny Price cannot be contained in the myths of post-feminism. It seemed to me Prof. Doody did not agree with what in Ms. Jones’s paper was a defense of recent popular women’s literature and post-feminism, nor did she think the books engaged seriously with what is in Austen.

Rozema’s replacement for Fanny in Mansfield Park (Frances O’Connor)

Since the second afternoon session had already started, I hurried off to what was closest and I thought would be of real interest to me: “Women’s Public and Private Writing in Eighteenth-Century England.” Two of the papers were about men writers (just now I am writing weekly on my delighted reading of the first installment, misnamed, Memoirs of a Highland Lady by Elizabeth Grant Smith, the sort of text I hoped to hear about but didn’t) or satire as such. One was on Johnson (always good to hear about him and hear him quoted), the other about the difficulties women experienced in writing satire (apologetic framing, published anonymously). Sonia Kane’s was on Maria Edgeworth’s letters, but as Ms. Kane seemed to me to avoid talking directly about what is most interesting (to me at any rate) in these letters, I was disappointed. I did ask her if she thought Maria Edgeworth was at all aware of her lesbian impulses, and if there was any sign in the letters of the kinds of shame and distress over her father’s domination of her and his endless impregnation of his wives and use of her as in effect a compensatory intellectual wife. She said she wouldn’t expect to find any such thing.

This was the last session of the day, and I think I’ll conclude this letter to you by sending you what I have been writing on Eighteenth Century Worlds about Elizabeth Grant Smith—as a sort of compensation for what I have not been able to tell you about women’s private writings in the 18th century.

Our book for the next 8 weeks on EighteenthCenturyWorlds is a memoir by woman who was born at the close of the eigheenth century and wrote a memoir of her early life in the middle of the nineteeth: Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemuchus, Memoirs of a Highland Lady.

Grant wrote this memoir in the middle of the 19th century on the
ostensible excuse she was writing it for her children and niece. If
you read her little epigraph, she says she began it that way, but no one goes on to write such huge amount for 2 people, even daughters and nieces. As per usual, it was not published until 50 years later, and then in an abridged, censured, and bowdlerized version where all the hard and true things she said about her family members and life itself and society were either expunged altogether or so cut you wouldn’t get it. The book immediately sold—or so we are told (I’ve come to know that books don’t sell on their own so miraculously, but are pushed and that the circulation of books is exaggerated). Four editions came out in the first half of the twentieth century.

By chance we might say the original huge two volume manuscript
remained in the hands of the family undestroyed. It’s not really by
chance for if it really had revealed what the family felt socially unaceptable (many things today are acceptable to say) about anyone living (the people are all long dead and the ones used for satire are more minor characters, people already not respectable quite), it would not have survived. Grant’s great-great-great-granddaughter allowed Canongate press to publish the whole book unexpurgated for the sake of the revelation of Scotland, the Highlands and (as she probably saw, as she seems to have been intelligent and large-minded) prestige to accrue for the family in the early 21st century world.

So one hundred and fifty years later the book sees the light. This
is common for women’s autobiographies. By someone who perhaps does not share Grant’s outlook (a modern scholarly Scots male editor). He apologizes for the lack of annotation; to annotate this kind of book would be heroic enterprize, but he has tried to restore original spellings, and provided an appendix.

The title misleads: this is the memoir of an English-Scots woman from her early childhood to the time of her marriage at the late age of 33, turning what were apparently well-kept and voluminous entries as well as family records into a tale of growing up in the later 18th century in the context of a struggling family of a younger Scots highlander son who practiced law and sought to make contacts and money through parliamentary politics (of the usual corrupt sort, bribery, cut-throat tactics). He married the daughter of a southern gentry landowner, someone considerably above or richer than either Burneys, Austens, Smiths, or Radcliffes (women we are familiar with as novelists).

She went on to write a memoir of her time in France in the 1840s (The Highland Lady in France), recording and discussing her time there (sick, seeking health and trying to help her family retrench), after 10 years in Ireland, about which she also wrote a memoir (it’s been published, The Highland Lady In Ireland). Whether she wrote about her time in Bombay (many years) or return to the Highlands we are not told. As this memoir of her early years has only very recently (more than 150 years after it was first found and published in a censored and abridged state) been published without cuts and as is, I would not trust that there wasn’t at some time a memoir for the very late years. You’d have to go to muniment rooms of the family and other letters to sleuth to discover.

She’s delightful, what I’d call a dry satirist who presents herself
as having a warm heart, just that typical combination of sentiment
and satire characteristic of the second half of the 18th century. She’s already alluded to Sterne, but she is not lachrymose.

The book opens with a realistic picture of her grandparents’ desperate kinds of lives in the Highlands (as she says the people owning these vast stretches of land did not know how to turn it into money—later they sold the woods), how they took military and court positions, and how her father went to London to try to make his way into wealth, prominence and find personal interest and failed, with the exception of getting married to a middling Englishwoman who he returned to Scotland with. The father
was (the editor says) someone who was not a worldly success. The editor is hard on the mother, calling her an evil woman, but as yet only the mother’s rigidity has emerged.

Beyond that underneath her basically upbeat tone, she tells a hard story of often desperate people. Her mother (characterized or bad-mouthed by the editor as very cruel) thus far seems a sort of Lady Bertram who has good reason not to go out much as she has nowhere to go and is often ill from continual pregnancies, and not much to do. An aunt escapes to marriage with an older man and thus a lifetime of drudgery as an “aunt-governess,” but this is a great loss for the children for the substitute is a remarkably dense and cruel woman. I really feel shocked at the way this woman and both parents literally whip their children into eating (using cuts on the cheek), will remorselessly slap their faces back and forth, humiliate and otherwise treat them brutally as a matter of course.

Those reading this book will get a very real picture of Scotland in
the second half of the 18th century and early 19th. Alas, Grant did not tell of her later life: after she married, she went to India for a while (colonialism did provide a way for these upper class types to try to make it); her book ends just as this opening phase of her marriage begins. The later part of her life would have told much more but then the book might’ve been destroyed.

Even if she herself celebrates the beautiful landscape she remembered as a child and eventually returned to after many years of living in many different places. As the book progresses, she’s being brought up far more in London and the home counties than Scotland thus far. It’s rich in detail and tells of several different families so that’s hard to present. Beyond that underneath her basically upbeat tone, she tells a hard story of often desperate people. Her mother thus far seems a sort of Lady Bertram who has good reason not to go out much as she has nowhere to go and is often ill from continual pregnancies, and not much to do. An aunt escapes to marriage with an older man and thus a lifetime of drudgery as an “aunt-governess,” but this is a great loss for the children for the substitute is a remarkably dense and cruel woman. I really feel shocked at the way this woman and both parents literally whip their children into eating (using cuts on the cheek), will remorselessly slap their faces back and forth, humiliate and otherwise treat them brutally as a matter of course.

My explanation or understanding of what I read was by looking at the behavior partly as Catherine did: in the mother’s case, something was not being explained. She had clearly been pregnant frequently and so it might just be exhaustion or some condition which resulted from the myriad of things which could go wrong from pregnancy, miscarriage, or childbirth. But I also was struck how she was given nothing to do beyond have babies. Her husband had a career outside the home so busy Elizabeth Grant remarks they hardly ever saw one another (or just enough to keep her pregnant or possibly pregnant). In the home though once the woman decided not to breast-feed a particular baby (for whatever reason) she hands them over to others to bring up. It seemed to me the description of social contact was very like that of Austen or other later 18th century women: Jane Ironside gets together with other people to network, and has to dress up extraordinarily; the whole thing is super-formal, and there seems to be no genuine companionship or enjoyment. Grant’s description of a typical evening in or out makes that clear. The mother has no friends outside the family and inside no one congenial.

This supports the depiction of women’s lives we find in Austen’s life and in Burney’s novels. It’s rare for the heroine to come into contact with anyone congenial. Austen was so desperate she valued the woman who was responsible for parting her from Lefroy; while I wouldn’t over-emphasize the importance of the early romance, it was an act of betrayal. In Burney’s novels again and again the heroine is coerced into a relationship with a woman which is better than nothing (for the woman has some brains and contacts and interests), but as grating and sometimes destructive as it is supportive.

I was startled by the regular cruelty of the behavior of the care-takers of the children to the children and the parents’ reinforcement of this. However, if you read on you do discover the governess who was the worst (Mrs Millar) is eventually taken away to an asylum when she goes over the top. We are told in another house she held a young boy’s head under the water “as a punishment” and he nearly died. Now this offers another perspective if you think about it: we may be inclined to say what a vicious twisted cold woman, but what do we know of this governess’s life. She is given packs of children to control and little salary and kept apart from others. She has no chance whatsover of a life of her own (sexual or otherwise).

Chapter 6 in particular is superb: Grant remembers a long series of visits she and her family made to other Grants in and around Scotland, not just the highlands, but Glasgow and the lowlands. Her portraits of her relatives are inimitable: for the first time I came into contact with that acid satiric saturnine tone so familiar to me from the writing of Jane Austen, Charlotte Smith, and Ann Radcliffe. It seems to have been endemic for women’s style in the period as the 1808 translator of Germaine de Stael’s Corinne (thought rightly probably to have been a woman) has this tone too.

She tells it like it was: the lairds with non-aristocratic (barely
named) mistresses by whom another tribe of children is had, people half-crazy, kind and stupid, hollow and successful, all types, bare homes which are yet so far above those of the peasants and “civilized” (with servants to do all the work, and hard it must’ve been) and the descriptions of land- and lake- and mountainscape are in the picturesque style. It’s as if she does have a painting in mind. I wish I had the time to scan some of the scenes, character portraits and scenic verbal painting in.

Chapter 7 turns back to the heroine’s education and life among her relatives in London and England. (No small matter this travelling back and forth from Scotland and southern England—it cost and was done through huge coaches). Again harsh punishments meted out, this time stories of desperate survival by women. Among the books Elizabeth read and cites is Jane Porter’s Scottish Chiefs which Elizabeth thinks “initiates us into the realities of life and the truth of history.”

I carried on for another chapter last night (at 2 in the morning, Harriet): Chapter 8 (1810-1811) takes us to Oxford and Cheltenham. What happens is Grant’s family sends Elizabeth and her older sister, Jane, to stay with a relative who is somebody high in Oxford, there to be educated by him and his wife. His wife, Elizabeth and Jane Grant’s aunt, does take her task seriously, and appears to have been well-read and able herself, and tutors are hired for the girls.

This may sound strange but it was done to the Austen girls, only the Austens didn’t have the money or powerful connections to send their girls to a decent place: the woman was a demi-monde half-crook, the girls almost died of disease (an aunt did who came to rescue them) and they were only sent out once more and then brought back quickly. Later in the century the Brontes try this for their daughters (as we recall from the horrors of Jane Eyre). Boys were not the only children picked off in pairs and sent.

Elizabeth Grant says she and her sister felt odd being pulled out of family life and were partly relieved to return, but it seems to me this was the purpose. To get them out in the social world somehow or other. IN the case of people with more money not to harden the girls so much (that was the goal of sending boys away) Grant’s chapter is a concises and sharp and picturesque retelling of Oxford life at the time. It does indeed appear the young men for the most part didn’t study (a very few did) nor did the Dons work very hard. We get quite a revealing picture if you think about what you are seeing: cronyism or nepotism as words would have startled this era. At one point all go on holiday and we get a depiction of Cheltenham which is equally revealing. Austen’s letters do not begin to show it, and it’s clear it was a better place for girls than Bath if only because it seems it was not so relentlessly a husband-hunting ground for women of genteel families. It was more expensive than Bath by this time.

Again an asture picturesque style recreates places and scenes. Among other people she encounters Percy Bysshe Shelley. And how does he emerge? Well as a bohemian young man, more trouble than he was worth. Instead of the sensitive radical poet, we have a “ringleader of every species of mischief.” He committed (according to Grant) “wild pranks,” and instead being properly grateful to the “kind remonstrations” of his Tutor, “spill[ed] acid over the carpet of that gentlemen’s study, a new purchase, which he thus completely destroyed.” She doesn’t think PBS might have been nervous. No. He was “malicious at Univerisity … very insubordinate, always infringing some rules, the breaking of which he knew could not be overlooked. He was slovenly in his dress, nor indeed taking any pains to fasten any of his garments with a proper regard to decency.” When spoken to, he would make “extraordinary gestures, expressive of his humility under reproof, as to overset first the gravity, and then the temper of the lecturing tutor.” When he went to really “unpleasant lengths” and “pasted up atheistical squibs,” it was considered “necessary to expel” him, but out of regard for the long-suffering father, a long conference was had with the man. What a relief when he left.

My view of TV and most films is this: they’d love this interpretation of Shelley and would make a movie of it. Worse, yet, they’d make this interpretation into a hero-villain of the macho-male type or neurotic we never knew.

This little anecdote I’ve taken time to type out shows why I have said Grant is conservative and also the irony of still censoring her because she does at least tell the truth enough about her class and its ways. She is writing in 1845 and it’s the prudential older authority figure who speaks here, but she does not have the sympathy or insight or regard Shelley’s ideas as anything anyone would take seriously. I see this as connected with the kind of trivializing Andrew Davies does when he speaks of his screenplays from Austen and other high status novels to a TV audience. How sincere Davies is I don’t know; he’s got money to make.

There is information about Elizabeth Grant Smith, and for those who’d like to know more here it is, or three books: in The Scotswoman at home and abroad: nonfictional writing 1700-1900, ed. Dorothy McMillan (Glasgow, 1999), and A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, ed. Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan (Edinburgh, 1997). So nationalism has kept her presence known in print. As I’ve suggested, in fact she was as much English as Scots—more English than say Margaret Oliphant by origin and background and family connections. Oliphant became English as a professional writer and because her husband died and Blackwood gave her a way of supporting herself by writing for him. I was told that she is regarded as a 19th century writer by many. Here is an argument for a long 18th century.

The third book might be unexpected if you did not know from Elizabeth how politicking in her father’s mind meant votiing for those who would find niches for cadets of his and his wife’s family in India, and were you not to know she married first at 33 (not very marriageable by her teens as her father mismanaged his property and there was a small dowry only for Elizabeth) to a man who was hired by the East India company and then sent out to Bombay. Well there’s information on her in a biography of the Strachey family. Elizabeth Grant Smith was Lytton Strachey’s great aunt.

The title of the book is Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family by Barbara Caine.

Elizabeth Grant has real insight into herself and is sensitive enough to see things but also rather thick-skinned. I guess that’s why she survived, but her complacency about politics and sense of her position while revealing does not make her all that likeable so much as cool, calm. She does make a good complement to Pepys.

There’s so much here. It is rightly a classic and makes me remember how Susannah Moodie’s Life in the Bush is a Canadian classic of a similar type. This sort of book is what I hoped to hear about at the Private Writings session of the ASECS.

I have yet to make time for Leonard Woolf’s autobiography (he and Virginia Woolf belonged to the same milieu as the Stracheys) and the novel he wrote about colonialism, The Village in the Jungle, where I’ve a good idea he did tell the truth.

I recommend Grant’s memoir to all as enjoyable & instructive easy reading. As on Eighteenth Century Worlds @ Yahoo, one friend, Luca, who wanted to join in and couldn’t find or obtain Grant’s memoir, is reading, for fun here’s a modern romanticized still of a Scots rebel Highland laird, Liam Neeson as Rob Roy in the 1995 film with the calendar for the time we are “in Scotland.”

I did love him and identified with Jessica Lange as Mrs Rob Roy:

Gentle reader, I have had to break off to go to a dramatic reading of Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage by the stalwart members of the Washington Shakespeare Company at Clarke Street. I’ll be back on Tuesday to tell of day two at the 18th century conference in Atlanta.

A toute a l’heure,

Posted by: Ellen

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  1. In an essay on Bridget Jones’s Diary, Laura Mooneyham White analyzes this perhaps reactionary, nostalgic and playfully postmodern text to show “why Austen seems so very useful to contemporary readers.” The essay is called “Jane Austen’s World as Simulacrum in Fielding’s narratives of Bridget Jones, Persuasions, 24 (2002):256-268.
    Elinor    May 2, 10:39am    #

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